Baptists rethinking the use of catechisms (plural)?

This joke may be the most famous in all of Baptist humor.

While crossing a high bridge, a traveler encounters a distressed man who is poised to jump. The first man asks the second if he is religious and a Christian. The suicidal man answers, “yes,” to both. Catholic or Protestant? The jumper says, “Protestant.” And, as it turns out, both men are Baptists.

“Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” The second man, in a classic version of this joke found at the “Ship of Fools” website, replies: “Baptist Church of God.”

“Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” Second man: “Reformed Baptist Church of God.”

“Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” Second man: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”

So the first Baptist pushes the second to his death, shouting: “Die, heretic scum!”

The amazing thing is that they didn’t even get to fight about biblical inerrancy, the first chapter of Genesis or the precise details of the Second Coming of Christ.

For centuries, Baptists have had their share of arguments about doctrine and church life and they cherish their approach to the “priesthood of all believers” and the authority of every local congregation.

As the old saying goes, put two Baptists on an island and you will soon have the First Baptist Church of the Deserted Island and the Second Baptist Church of the Deserted Island.

Thus, it’s interesting that some educators, on the Baptist left and right, now believe that it’s time for modern Baptists to use an ancient tool — the catechism — in their struggles against rising levels of biblical and doctrinal illiteracy. Catechisms are short documents written in a simple, question-and-answer format to help children and new believers learn the basics of the faith.

“This used to be Sunday school for Baptists and the way that they taught and handed down doctrines from generation to generation,” said Thomas Nettles, who teaches historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Catechisms “showed you what you believed, in common with other Christians, but they also told you what you believed, as a Baptist, that was different from other Christians.”

For many Baptists today, proposing a Baptist catechism may sound as strange as talking about a Baptist creed or even a Baptist pope. The key, explained Nettles, is that while Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others can rally around a common catechism that expresses their tradition’s authoritative stance on doctrine, Baptists through history have freely chosen different catechisms at the local, congregational level.

For example, while early versions of the Sunday School Board — back in1863 and 1891 — published catechisms for Southern Baptists, some churches used them while others did not. The final doctrinal authority remained in local pews and pulpits. Some congregational leaders even wrote their own catechisms.

Tradition says there can be one Catholic catechism. By definition, Baptists have always needed multiple catechisms.

“Still, the reality was that there was more of a sense of shared faith and practice back then, compared with Baptist life today, which has been shaped by decades of conflict and arguments,” said Nettles. “We can’t go back to where we were. … Right now, I don’t think Baptists could even agree on what it would mean for us to try to hold doctrines in common. Too many things have happened to push us apart.”

Ironically, he said, some of the modern forces behind the creation of many Baptist niche groups — the Internet, parachurch ministry conferences and megachurches with superstar pastors — are now inspiring people to rally around documents that resemble catechisms. For example, some Baptists have begun to rebel against a kind of doctrinal “libertarianism” that denies the need for doctrinal specifics, period.

“You go online and this is what you see,” said Nettles. “People are speaking out and then other people will rally around that persuasive voice. Before you know it, a network has formed around a set of common beliefs and people start sharing what they know and what they believe.

“Then they start writing things down. Pretty soon they’re sharing books and educational materials. They even end up with things that look a lot like catechisms.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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